Inevitably the day of departure came. Mother and I took our seats on the morning train for Prince Albert where I was to receive an education and become a 'lady' The word terrified me! I sat In my corner recalling the wild bare-back rides across the prairie, driven by nothing but sheer exuberance of life. Who wanted to be a 'lady' anyway, mincing down the street with hair pinned under a confining hat, encased in stays which undoubtedly pinched your insides out of shape, and laced shoes which never permitted real earth to sift between wriggling toes?
I was being sent to prison - a torture-chamber - and it just wasn't fair! My mother's voice droned on, steadily reassuring me that deportment and gentility, manners and character, were qualities to be sought after and cherished. But what cared I for such hollow platitudes? I knew how I felt about those stupid things! My own family just didn't want me to be happy, that was all. How could they send me away if they really cared? And to a Roman Catholic convent too, while we were all Anglicans, except for Mabel and Benny!
When I remembered that I had been directly responsible for the immediacy of this decision to send me away to school, I could barely endure my abject misery. Cheeks burning in recall, I relived \ incident again...
Enmy's husband had bought a new horse and buggy. What a beauty that mare was! I just bet I could go down to the livery stable, hitch her up and drive through tovn! People would look and say, "There goes Fatty Sutton. She has a way with horses. You should see her ride!"
Then, almost before I was aware of what I was doing, I found myself at the stable demanding my brother-in-law's horse. With hands of the growing cold, I buckled and strapped until horse and buggy were ready. I climbed in, picked up the reins with confident hands and chucked the horse into motion. Off we went through town, my heart flying free as one of the early snow- flakes drifting down. The horse was going too fast to make the controlled impression I wished for, so I pulled on the reins to slow things down. No response. I pulled harder. Still, no response. I leaned back with all my strength and pulled! But the new mare had a hard mouth, and paid not one particle of attention.
By now we were sailing down Second Avenue at a great clip and the Empire Hotel was looming into view on my right. I tried to turn the runaway, but she was now well out of control. Before I could decide what to do next, I was Jolted right out of the buggy and catapulting through the air. 1 I landed head first in a large bale of hay - right across the road from my father's hotel! A man on the porch raised the alarm, and people converged from all sides. I was extracted from the hay feet first, clothes over my head, and humiliation running from every pore. Moments later I was confronted by ay father in his office and on the receiving end of one of his most fearsome dressings down!
I had sought solace from my mother who was in bed at the hotel suffering from one of her 'bad' days. She told me, without one veatage of sympathy, that it was a reckless thing to have done and I should feel thankful to be alive. "The only thing I can think of is to send you away to a convent. You are so unhappy here in town and at the school that I can think of no other solution," she had said with a. sigh followed by that firm setting of her mouth that I knew so well. My brothers too had turned on me.
"How can we ever hold our heads up again after all the bragging we've done about the way you have with horses?" they demanded hotly. "You HAD!" they amended, and walked away.
Then Mabel had come home from a singing lesson and after hearing my tale of woe said, "That's wonderful, Patty. You will love convent life. I know I did!"
So Mabel didn't understand either. Banished! I was being banished - and by my own family!....
We waited for an interminable time at Warman for another train whose passengers we were to pick up for Prince Albert. Many of our own passengers left the train to play 'catch' in a field or simply to walk along beside the train to stretch their legs during the two- hour wait. Ever the cautious traveler, my mother made me promises to never leave the train when traveling between Prince Albert and Saskatoon.
"The train could start up at a moment's notice, Patricia, and you would be left out there in a field somewhere!"
Dressed in my new drab navy serge dress with the white collar, long black stockings, the 'sensible 1 shoes selected by my father, and overshoes with countless buckles - how I hated them! - I was taken directly from the train to the Convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion.
Each step of the way leading to the massive, imposing, dull red building was a leaden pace toward my Doom. Mother rang the bell, straightened her hat and smoothed her dress, while the bile rose into my throat and my hands and feet grew even colder.
The great ponderous door was opened by the portress who gazed down upon me from her black and white pinnacle. "Come along in," she said, opening the door further and waving us from the sunlight into the silent gloom. "Mother Superior is expecting you!"
We were ushered into the Superior's private study and invited to sit down. With head hanging low, I heard my mother, always so forthright, say, "I am leaving Patty in your care, Mother Superior. You must remember that she has run wild down on the farm for three years with the boys."
Mother failed to notice, and I to understand, the sudden lift of the nun's eyebrows as she made mental note that this embarrassed, shy child of eleven, who appeared to be all arms and legs, must be watched for 'fast' tendencies. For many months to cone, she would appear suddenly, out of nowhere, and gave at me with X-ray vision
The interview dragged on. I continued to sit dejected, head down, surrepticiously scuffing at a worn spot in the carpet with the heel of my shoe. Finally the Superior rose, extended a hand in farewell to my mother, and said, "I am sure Patricia will be happy with us here, Mrs. Sutton." Happy! I almost choked!
My parent and I said a brief and private goodbye in the hall.
"I do hope you don't become a Catholic, Patty. Both Qnmy and Mabel went to a convent in England and now they have 'turned', so you are the only girl I have left to go to Church with," she said rather wistfully.
Then the door shut behind her, and for the first time in my life I felt abandoned and completely alone.
I was put under the charge of stern Mother Amalie. She was a nun of the old French School of Thought and Discipline, and our wills clashed from the moment of meeting. She was young, had a classic beauty of feature, and not one iota of humour in her make up. She found the untamed child a threat to the tidy order cf the convent and never missed an opportunity from the very first day, to correct a breach of manners, laxity in neatness, unshone shoes, a drooping stocking, or uneven part in my hair. Open rebellion was the usual result of one of her remarks of correction.
There ware twenty girls in our dormitory. A rising bell summoned us at six thirty. On the double we broke the ice on the surface of the basin of water in our cubicle and dabbed at our faces and necks with that frigid liquid, sufficiently to pass inspection by & black-robed, silent Mother Amalie who scrutinized each one of us with piercing eyes. We dressed on the double, hands and feet numb from the cold. Then, still on the double, each girl had to make her bed without a wrinkle.
Our pale blue starched bedspreads had white pillow shams embroidered in blue by the nuns and these had to stand up on the bed at an attractive angle. What a pack of nonsense!
I decided to make my position clear from the first morning. There was no use in letting either the nuns or the girls think that Patty Sutton was going to fuss about smoothing sheets and primping fancy pillow shams J As the other girls worked on their cots, I heaved the blankets up, then the spread, tucked in a drooping corner, threw the sham at the head of the bed, and stood back to survey the result. The line of girls stood beside their neatly made beds in silence looking at me. No one breathed. After a prolonged moment, Sister glided forward, extended a black-robed arm, and systematically stripped every article of bedding from the cot.
"You must learn how to make your bed properly, Patricia," she said. "I will show you how. Watch carefully."
Capably and swiftly the nun made up one side of the bed, then pointed to the other side and withdrew to her previous position at the head of the line of shivering, waiting girls. Were they really going to stand there until I went through this rigmarole? I couldn't believe it! We gazed at one another in disbelief for a time.
Slowly and hesitantly I approached my side and began clumsily turning my first 'hospital corner' and smoothing blankets into a semblance of order, for the first time in my life. At length, both the job and my humiliation were complete. It was not for many weeks that I relinquished my early morning attempts to show my independence, and accepted the fact that it was better to make the wretched bed properly in the first place. That nun had eyes in the back of her head!
Once our dormitory chores were done to our supervisor's satisfaction we all trooped through the draughty corridors to Chapel. Being 'Other Denominations', I sat at the back with a few of the other girls who were not Roman Catholics either. A priest would deliver the Mass, flanked by two little orphan boys who acted as accolades. I was entranced by the colour and excitement of the service for the first week or two. Then, one morning, we learned that we were to have a guest priest. We speculated in great excite ment as to his age, his manner, and above all, his looks!
The man was bald as an egg! I had never seen a completely bald man before, and the cranial indentations alternately appearing and disappearing in the Chapel's flickering candle-light fascinated me! Not only was the poor man bald, but he suffered from the gross-ness of dropsy. To ease the pressure, the two accolades fetched a stool from the vestry, and the ponderous form perched upon the tiny piece of furniture, his vestments draped around him in monstrous folds. I thought he looked hilarious and I found myself chuckling.
Aa the Mass droned on, I became convinced that the priest would topple from his perch. The imagined spectable sent me into gales of laughter which I vainly endeavoured to smother behind my two hands clamped firmly over my mouth.
The girl beside me gave a dig with her elbow and hissed, "Keep quiet, PattyJ Sister is looking around!"
The priest gazed in my direction with raised eyebrows. His ears stuck out at the sides of his head like jug handles, and his questioning round eyes and receding chin made him look like a frog. The harder I tried to control my paroxysms of mirth, the more vivid became my mental images. The priest leaned forward on his stool. "Here he goes!" I thought wildly, and a peal of laughter burst from my shaking body.
A dark form appeared at the end of the pew where I sat flanked by four girls on either side. Mother Amalie's cold blue eyes bored into me as I raised my head to look at her. With one commanding motion of her arm, she pointed a long white finger at the door and stood in that stance while I climbed over legs and laps until I reached the corridor outside where I became convulsed in hysterical laughter - laughter that returned In spasms throughout my hour-long punishment of writing ' lines ', supervised in silence by the cold, heartless Mother Amalie....
"This is the time when we do our mending, Patricia," Mother Amalie informed me.
"I don't know how to mend," I retorted.
"Then it is time you learned."
The girls gathered in a group supervised by the nun.
"I'm not going to do THAT," I hissed to my neighbour as I watched her make tiny stitches around a stocking hole. "I'm just going to pull ray hole together."
"You have to take it up to Sister when you're through," the ether girl warned.
Undaunted, I pulled together the sides of a fairly large hole in my long black stockings, made a few securing stitches, then took my effort up to Sister. Mother Amalie looked at the lumpy mess, took up her scissors, snipped out my darn and handed me back a much bigger hole to work on - all without a word.
In short order I learned to put a blob of ink on an obvious area of white leg shoving -through a black stocking, and only tackled a hole when it became so big that ink removal was a worse chore than darning - or I was found out!
An elderly French priest became our regular convent chaplain. Father Perque would come to visit our classrooms on occasion and sit and chat with us informally. I loved the quiet humour of the little man who called me 'Bright Eyes'.
The front walk was out-of-bounds for all the girls. One day during recreation period I saw Father Perque coming along the path toward the front door. Without a moment's hesitation I leaped over the hedge to catch hold of his hand and walk along with him for a moment or two. After he left, I was summoned to Mother Superior's study where a cold Mother Amalie stood beside her superior's desk.
I was described as a "long-legged creature revealing her undergarments to our gentlemanly cure." Furthermore, I was a girl with "no composure - no dignity" and I was to write the Commandments out ten times.
"I don't know the Commandments," I shot back while Mother Superior sat there with her hands folded, not having uttered a word.
"I'll get you a book then," Mother Amalie promised firmly, she swept out of the study.
I turned to Mother Superior. This was not the first time I had been dressed down for 'dicipline 1 . It was not as if I had MURDERED someone, or ROBBED, or BEATEN up some poor unsuspecting individual, I thundered at the Superior' calm face as she sat there with hands still folded and eyes lowered. This was a characteristic gesture of hers which I assumed was symbolic of the great burden of responsibility which she bore and to which I had just added another ton or two. On and on I went until, my anger vented, I stood silent at last, waiting for some recognition of the justice of my cause. The nun's eyes raised their level to mine, and for the first time I was allowed to see the twinkle which the lowered lids had hidden.
"Patricia, you will just have to put up with Mother Amalie for the time being. You may go now."
As I walked back to the dormitory, my spirits rose.
"She knows what a bear that nun is too!" I thought, "and she can't do anything about her either. We'll both just have to put up with her together!"
I was never sure whether I finally graduated from Mother Amelia's charge or whether she just couldn't cope with me for another day, but the time came when I was sent to Mother Plerre, a tall six-foot nun, strikingly thin and somewhat forbidding In mien. Her classes opened each day with a fifteen minute talk on some virtue which each girl was to practice during the day, but no one of us ever managed to approach the virtue exemplified by this remarkable woman, who still managed to be one of us. She played our games, laughed at our jokes, and loved us - each and every one.
During our half-hour study period one evening, the sunset called to me with such force that the classroom was left behind and I was transported to far away places. Sitting with my chin in my propped hands, I failed to notice tattletale Yvette observing me. Her big dark eyes looked from Mother Pierre's head bent over a pile of papers and back to me. I was returned to class with ignominious haste when I heard my fellow student tell Mother that I was not applying myself to the work before me. The nun looked at me, and remained silent.
I found myself on my feet in a split second and heard my voice saying heatedly, "If Yvette had been minding HER studies, she wouldn't have noticed me!"
A letter arrived from home saying that my mother was coming to Prince Albert to see how I was faring with the new life to which I was being exposed, now that the Initial period of adjustment was over. We would celebrate the occasion by going to the stores where we would buy any new articles of clothing I might need.
Our dormitory was up at six-thirty as usual, and we doubled through our early morning chores. As a special concession, In deference to my mother's visit, she and I ate breakfast alone together in a small private room. I was excused from classes for the day, and Mother and I set off to make our purchases. It was early yet, so we had time to spare before the stores opened.
"Let's walk down by the river," she suggested. We sauntered along for awhile enjoying each other's company. At a turn in the path we both drew up sharply. There stood a strikingly handsome Indian , resplendent in feathered headdress and hide garments. His enisled features were set as he gazed, arms akimbo, up the river.
"What a picture!" my mother whispered softly as we slipped quietly away. Several hours later, our shopping completed, we decided to return to the convent along the same river path. There stood the same proud figure, lost in silent contemplation, appearing not to have moved a muscle since we cane upon him so early in the morning. For the first time, I had glimpsed the majesty of a fine race of people. What were the thoughts that kept him transfixed there, hour after hour? That picture has remained with me all my life....
Mother Pierre watched our character development like a hawk. When a girl misbehaved, she was invited to the nun's cell for a private talk after regular classes. I enjoyed these little chats so much that I used to misbehave on purpose. When I was discovered, I was on the receiving end of a blistering lecture. One of the older girls observed, "You know, Mother Pierre, going through your hands is just like going through a novitiate!" at which the nun dissolved into rolicking laughter. She encouraged individual objectivity in her class, and we had violent debates on such topics as French vs. English, Catholics vs. Protestants.
One day, the girl who always won the Good Conduct monthly award in our class, came up to me. "It's time you did something, Patty. Things are getting a little dull around here!"
It came to me in a flash that the good conduct winners NEVER cut up themselves.
"If you want some excitement, think up something yourself!" I retorted.
I was asked to remain behind one afternoon after class was dismissed.
"You know that you are a little older than the rest of the girls in this room, Patricia. If you really worked, I believe you could do two grades in one year," said Mother Pierre.
"I'd never do it with MY arithmetic," I shrugged.
"You could, you know. And I will help you after regular class. Go away now and think about it. If you are willing to stop clowning for the benefit of the class and buckle down to real work, you will get your Entrance with those girls nearer your own age."
The role of class clown had grown sweet to me. During my first concert at the convent, I had taken the part of a bratty girl with two staid parents, sitting in a tram near a bald-headed man. My uninhibited remarks brought down the house. We all found an appreciative audience in the nuns who ware completely unspoiled by never having attended a professional performance. How they applauded!
"You have real talent, Patricia." "You wore so funny I am still laughing!" Remarks like these wore balm indeed to me. Did I really want to forfeit my one claim to fame in this place and become a 'student'? As I mused over the pros and cons of my decision for Mother Pierre, I recalled the time when I had gone too far...
A new nun recently arrived from Germany was supplying in our class while Mother Pierre taught Art in another room. Not only was the country new to her, but the language too. It seemed like the ideal situation for a lark.
I inveigled three others to join me in deliberately misleading the new teacher by giving wrong names when she took our attendance.
When my turn came, I announced, "Je ne parle pas anglais. Je parle francais!"
The girls' titters turned to outright laughter, and any pretense at class dicipline went out the window as we cavorted through the lesson.
When news of the incident reached the ears of Mother Pierre we were questioned as to .why we would take advantage of our knowledge of the language at the expense of another.
"It was fun!" I had stated perkily.
We four culprits were all subjected to a searing lecture on charity, and put in 'Coventry' by the entire school for three full days...
The day came when Mother Pierre asked my decision regarding her proposed double-duty programme of study. I decided to be a martyr if it would please her, and go while my classmates played in the outdoors which I so dearly loved, I sat - night after night -with Mother Pierre, studying.
For many weeks the steady pace was maintained, until the time came when I balked. Arithmetic - my old bug-a-boo - was the catalyst.
"I'm not going to do any more of these stupid questions," I stated firmly, pushing my copy-book and pencil from me. Mother Pierre, whose will was quite as strong as mine, said quietly, "We will sit here until morning if necessary, Patricia, but you will do it!"
There was not even a creak to break the overpowering silence. I was getting so tired! Fresh as morning dew, Mother Pierre sat there gazing at me. I knew I could last no longer, and with a sob of tumbling pride, I reached for the book and pencil and completed the assignment. Two solitary figures walked the darkened corridors to the other dormitory, one tall and straight, the other small and humbled. The man stayed beside me until I crawled into bed, exhausted and chastened. The incident was never mentioned again between us. But next morning I found at my desk a cartoon of a donkey - with my face!
By my second year at the convent, I found that I could relax more. I had been successful in obtaining my Entrance with girls of my own age, and although I still rebelled at the constant dicipline, the quiet hours of study and regular routine were good for me.
I awoke one morning with a vicious toothache. For some days the offender had been pounding with increasing intensity, and I had, been doing my best to ignore it. Going to a dentist was like going to a butcher, and people went only when driven by necessity. I took my problem to Mother Fierre who could see by my swollen face that I was not bluffing. The problem was passed along to Mother Superior.
"Well, we'll have to take her to the dentist, but we'll wait another twenty-four hours to see if it will subside," she decreed.
In abject misery I waited out another day and night, unable to determine whether the increasing pain or the dreaded visit was worse. It looked as if I were to have both! Since I was still ambulatory, all necessary calls of nature had to be answered by dragging my aching body outside and along the back path to the 'ten-holer'.
The new day dawned bringing more swelling, increased throbbing and resignation to the inevitable. A nun, newly arrived from Europe, was to accompany me. Why, oh why, could Mother Pierre not come instead? We walked the many blocks in silence.
Eventually we arrived, and I climbed into the dentist's chair and waited throughout his examination for the dreaded verdict.
"You have a badly ulcerated tooth," he pronounced. "Hold on to the sides of the chair!" and with no further preparation, he began to extract my tooth.
The roots went deep into ray jaw and with every wrench of the pliers, I howled from the depths of my being. When both dentist and patient were limp with exhaustion and, the bloody tooth lay in a tray, I was led out to Sister who looked at me scornfully, saying only "You yelled!" In scathing tones. Not another word was said as we walked back to the convent. I was so shamed by her reproach when I had been hoping for a little sympathy.
Mother Pierre met us at the door and led me off by the hand to the dormitory where I pitifully enquired, "Could I have a hot water bottle?" and for the remainder of the day I wallowed In the luxury of being permitted to lie down with the soothing bottle at my cheek....
Soon after my bout with the dentist, my mother sent me some spending money from home. Two other equally affluent girls and I obtained special permission to go to the candy-store, unescorted - a real concession. As we walked gaily along the street, our attention was drawn to several large billboards which announced the main events of a traveling circus. It was here In Prince Albert! And it was starting today!
Using my most persuasive powers, the others were soon persuaded into coming along with me to see the animals. We arrived at the Fair Grounds where we bought bags of popcorn and jaunted merrily down the midway. The barkers were irresistible, and it was no time at all until we found ourselves seated in the main tent for the afternoon performance.
The tumblers were fantastic! And those tight-rope walkers. 1 We each decided that this was to be our vocation in life! The trapeze artists wore a purple cloak and spangly tights. I decided on the spot that those were my colours too! The noise and splendour o f it all transported us, and we completely forgot about time.
When we got up to take a reluctant departure, Toots somehow managed to get one plump foot stuck in a loose board. She pulled at it in vain. I gave the other girl my eaten bag of candy to hold, and went to the rescue. Down on my hands and knees, I pried and pulled while Toots cried her lungs out. Oblivious to the spectacle we were making of ourselves, we carried on until we finally got Toots' foot worked free. We then left the circus grounds to return to school, one limping tearfully, one dishevelled, and all sporting candy-smeared hands and faces.
The closer we came to the convent, the larger loomed our fear of retribution.
"You go first," I suggested after we had all agreed that we should enter as discretely as possible by one of the side doors.
"No, YOU go first! the others decided.
"We'll go In together," I said firmly.
To our horror, all the secondary means of entry were locked. Only the main door was open. We tip-toed through the entrance as unobtrusively as wraiths, easing the massive door shut behind us, and turned around. There stood Mother Superior. Some '-well-wisher 1 from the circus audience had telephoned the convent asking if she knew that her girls were creating an undesirable impression in town and being highly conspicuous.
She was furious! We had obtained her permission to go to the candy-store - unescorted - and this was the manner in which we repaid her trust! It would be necessary to consider if the three of us should be expelled] When I thought of my father's wrath, I dissolved into tears.
We were handed over to Mother Pierre whose face was like an iceberg. In silence, she beckoned with a long, bony finger.
"It was YOUR fault," the others cried as we followed the tall figure down the long dark hallway, heaping even more blame on my conscience-ridden head.
I did not resent the two hundred lines punishment, but I did ponder on the differences in the male and female psychology. My brothers would never cast blame on any other person, and these girls hadn't been THAT hard to persuade!
The weeks passed slowly tad the nuns met my tentative approaches of friendliness with stony silence. I became convinced that details concerning my expulsion ware being finalized. During the next holidays, after I realized that my fears of being expelled were groundless, I boasted to my brothers of the escapade, and was over heard by my mother.
"That was a most unprincipled thing to do, Patricia. I don't think you should brag about it. We certainly never heard of the incident."...
Some of the girls had beautifully made uniforms. Mine were inexpensive and amateurishly put together by some inexperienced woman to whom my mother had given much-needed work. The day came when I appealed for a decent dress, and Mabel backed me up. During the holidays Mother had a beautiful uniform made. It boasted a hobble underskirt.
"That will stop you from kicking up your heels," said Father.
Back at school, we were all outdoors engaged in our regular Sunday recreation. Sister Lewis sat at a window observing us and laughing at our antics. With a built-in audience like this, the ham in me had to respond.
"If you really want to laugh, Sister, just look at me kick! I can kick even higher than my brothers!"
I would show these city girls how a real farmer's daughter could tear a strip off the best of them! Tensing my muscles for the highest kick of my life, and very conscious of the watching girls, I let go with all the released power of which I was capable. The sudden shock of finding myself sitting in an ignominious heap of wounded vanity was only accentuated by the mocking laughter of the girls. But I had heard something else which only compounded by grief.
"Come into the classroom for awhile," a quiet voice said and I looked up at the black-robed figure. Sister led me off to the quiet of a deserted schoolroom where I gave vent to a paroxysm of tears.
"Why are you crying over such a small hurt?" she asked.
"I'm not creying because I'm hurt, but because I've just torn the only good dress I won. my mother just had it made for me and it's my very first good dress!" I sobbed.
"Give it to me and your mother will never know," she said. Day after day I watched the nun as she came and went about her duties. She must have been aware of my questioning looks, but not a single word of reassurance did she give me. For two weeks I maintained my vigil, straining all the virues of patience I could muster. Finally, when I had almost given my beautiful dress up for lost, Sister called me after class into her tiny cell.
There was my dress lying across the bed. I looked for the tear in vain. When was the darn? I picked the uniform up in disbelief. There was no mend in the fabric. One of the Sisters had painstakingly rewoven every single fibre in both warp and woof!
© Copyright 2024